Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

CAPITALISM / SOCIALISM / DEMOCRACY - Steppe Immunity: Mongolian History and the Changing Meanings of Darkhlaa (Christian Sorace)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm

133 S. 36th Street, Room 250 (Forum)
In-person event. Please register here.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the discourse “immunity” has become a common topic of conversation. The bio-medical definition of immunity, however, is a relatively recent 20th century invention. As traced by CHRISTIAN SORACE (Cambridge), in Mongolia, the word for immunity darkhlaa is a polysemous concept, which has historically designated sacred borders, protected social statuses, and sovereign dispensations. During the steppe empires, darkhlaa was a practice of rule through which the sovereign granted exemptions from taxation, conscription, and other duties to deserving subjects. Darkhan status was often granted to obtain the allegiance of religious, local, and professional elites, or in reward for exceptional service to the empire. During Mongolia’s socialist period (1921-1990), darkhlaa retained the connotation of exception and privilege, but was re-coded as a negative attribute of the ruling class. Socialist equality required the abolition of immune privileges. In post-socialist Mongolia, darklhaa appears in the discourse of national survival, extinction, and identity. Practices are said to either strengthen or weaken the darkhlaa of Mongolian identity, culture, and language. In this context, national survival requires the immunization of identity against Mongolia’s neighbors. In the last several decades, political thinkers ranging from Peter Sloterdijk, Donna Haraway, Roberto Eposito, to Rosi Bradiotti, have conceptualized immunity’s status as a metaphor and practice in the formation of social order.  By tracing the different meanings and uses of the darkhlaa throughout history, this paper hopes to de-colonize and expand contemporary debates on immunity as a concept of political thought.

CHRISTIAN SORACE is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Shaken Authority: China's Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, co-editor of Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi and Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of democracy in post-socialist Mongolia.